Every champion in MMA history started out somewhere.
For those who make it to the highest stage, the journey begins long before they strap on UFC, Bellator, or PFL gloves. Modern-era fighters progress through the regional ranks with hopes of accomplishing the highest accolades. Many will try, few will succeed.
This month, five fighters on the verge of achieving major promotion notoriety – one for the second time – return to the cage for what could be their stepping stone fight. There are dozens of fighters close to making the jump in the coming weeks, but these five are particularly exemplary.
- A fighter who was rostered by the UFC and whose opportunity fell through due to circumstances outside of his control continues his mission back toward the promotion.
- One of the best pound-for-pound fighters in Texas thinks a win over another hungry up-and-comer will earn him a Fury FC title shot – or a UFC call.
- A bulky welterweight nicknamed “The Muscle Hampster” is ready to continue his success and remain undefeated so the celebratory ice cream tastes even sweeter.
- A seasoned Florida flyweight fighting for a deep meaning is flying under the radar – and he hopes to change that.
- A CFFC alum and B2 Fighting Series standout is keeping active in hopes the UFC will take notice.
Weight class: Bantamweight
Next Fight: Friday vs. Diego Silva (14-7) at LFA 138 in Shawnee, Okla. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: In the UFC or Bellator, flash can get fighters farther than on the regional scene. For regional up-and-comers, having substance is more important. Born in Palestine, Askar Askar originally picked up fighting to deal with bullies. Since making self-defense (and now offense, too) methods his profession, Askar quietly crept up the regional ranks. In the long term, however, it’s not about who’s the loudest. It’s about who’s the best. And earlier this year, the UFC deemed Askar the next man in line. However, his promotional debut never occurred and his stint ended before it began when he failed pre-fight medicals and was released from the promotion. Since, he’s gone 2-1. With a clean bill of health, Askar looks to punch his return ticket in his next LFA fight.
The skinny: Askar already has been there once. His next fight literally was supposed to be in the UFC. With the health scare behind him and with the support of a Chicago health specialist, I don’t see any reason why the UFC would hold the past against him – especially given his talent level. He’s good on the mic and has a very personable attitude. He’s only 27, which means the best is still to come. If he wins yet another high-stakes fight at LFA against a game opponent, I think he should be a layup for a short-notice opportunity for the UFC this year. If not, perhaps Dana White’s Contender Series will be a viable option.
In his own words: “I’ve done three camps at Factory X now. I feel like this was really the one where I was able to hone in my skills (and) get rounds in with every single athlete here that’s my size, like Youssef Zalal, Chris Gutierrez, Jonathan Martinez and Collin Anglin. I’ve been able to work with every single guy and not just be a training session or two. … I really feel like I did some growing the past couple months.”
“… Truly, I don’t really feel like I’ve shown who I am. Every fighter will say this: The guy they are in the gym, they haven’t shown that guy in the cage yet. That can be true for a lot of athletes. Some guys can be over-exaggerating. But I feel like I need to get to the point that if I can show who I am in the gym against some of these dudes I fight, I can start finishing these guys. I can start putting them away. I’ll start submitting them. The more I do it, the more I get in there and f*cking compete. That’s what I’ve been focused on for the last couple years. I’m only going to get better. I’m only going to get sharper. I’m only going to get smarter.”
“… It’d be amazing if the UFC could give me a Dana White’s Contender Series shot or just a straight shot. But at the end of the day, I just want my next fight to be a fight that’s worth money. No more LFA. As much as I love LFA and I appreciate everybody at LFA, the next one needs to be Bellator, PFL or UFC. I just need a big show fight to get me in there. At the end of the day, I could go to any league and I’ll end up where I need to end up.”
Weight class: Flyweight
Next Fight: Aug. 14 vs. Joshua Thawng (5-1) at Fury FC 67 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Paris Moran is only 26, but his journey in combat sports already is two decades long. At 6 his father put him taekwondo. He hated it – as he did most sports. And like other sports, taekwondo was not an athletic activity he excelled in. In 2007, along came jiu-jitsu and eventually things changed. For the first time, the long-haired gamer found the sport that pulled him out of his shell. His parents divorced, Paris found jiu-jitsu classes as the perfect father-son bonding opportunity – an added bonus. Two years of jiu-jitsu later, Moran joined high school wrestling. Then came striking. His striking took off. He became a seven-time national champion in sanshou karate (wushu). Next scene, Moran was competing in Russia, China, Costa Rica, Taiwan – you name it. A national champion had become Mr. Worldwide.
The skinny: Look over Moran’s Tapology page and you’ll notice a few things. First off, there are a lot of wins. You’ll also probably notice a lack of finishes. But Moran knows that’s an improvement that’s necessary and it’ll come with time. Definitely don’t overlook the fact he’s competing against such premiere talent, too. His most recent opponents’ records are 5-1, 6-2, 7-1, and 8-4. His next opponent is 5-1. Top-tier regional flyweights are hard to come by but Moran and Fury FC have found them and he’s passed each test. The experience is there. The technique is there. The personality is there. The talent is there. The last piece of the puzzle is highlights, and logically, it make senses that will naturally come soon.
In his own words: “Besides the physical aspect that I am a big flyweight, I’m very technically sound. Although I prefer to strike and have been striking my whole life and been doing MMA my whole life, I’m very well-rounded – but no one gets to see that yet. No one has seen me on the ground. No one has seen me wrestle. You just see me do takedown defense. Really, my striking is my forte. The technical aspect of it is what I think is exciting. I’m a very technical, smart fighter.”
“… I feel I’m close (to the UFC), whether it’s this fight or the next one. They want to see a finish and I need to get a finish. It’s not like I have to. I’m not going to be going out there trying to expose myself to get a finish, but I do feel that I’m one or two fights away. I’m not trying to rush it. If they call me, great. If they don’t call me, I’m not butt hurt. I’m not upset. I know my time will come. It’s not about me getting there to the UFC. It’s about staying there. So if I’m getting more experience before I get into the UFC, so be it. That’s fine with me. That’s really what I want. You want to get the experience before you get into the UFC. Because once you’re in there, you’re in there. If you get out, that’s the hardest thing is getting back in.”
“Without a doubt I do (think I’m UFC-ready). I train with Matt Schnell all the time. What is he, No. 8 flyweight in the UFC? Matt is my boy. I’ve learned a lot from Matt. He teaches me a lot. I feel like I can hang with anybody in the 125-pound division. Put me in the top 10. I’ll hang with them and I’ll beat them, too. It doesn’t matter.”
Weight class: Welterweight
Next Fight: Aug. 19 vs. TBA at LFA 139 in Niagara Falls, N.Y. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Football was Josiah Harrell’s first love. A kid from Ohio, Harrell set out to walk-on at the University of Cincinnati. Unable to walk on first semester, Harrell ran into financial issues that caused a life pivot. Self-described as “a little emotional,” Harrell packed up his stuff and began calling army recruiters left and right. That path also was cut short. Due to a small scar on the back of his neck, Harrell was not allowed to swear in after he completed training. A bit lost, Harrell started coaching wrestling. After a discussion with a former coach of his own, Harrell decided to give amateur MMA a one-time shot. If it went well, he’d continue. If not, it was back to school. Four years later, he’s an undefeated professional at 5-0.
The skinny: Nicknamed “The Muscle Hampster” after former NFL running back Doug Martin, Harrell is a bulky welterweight who admits he loves ice cream – but only in between camps. He still has a lot to improve on and with a high potential ceiling that’s not a bad thing. Harrell spends some time training with and under UFC legend Matt Brown and UFC Hall of Famer Mark Coleman. Talk about a pair of role models, eh? His wrestling has looked stupendous through five pro fights and he has a 100 percent finishing rate. The other parts of his game will come along if they haven’t already. It’s just been tough to tell where they’re at, since he hasn’t needed to show them. That’s a pretty damn good sign within itself.
In his own words: “I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, he’s just another wrestler.’ But if you dive deep or get deep enough, I started in 2018. I’m really actually new. If you look at how many times I’m hit. If you look at how much damage and I do, compared to them. If you look at the pace and everything, I am constantly improving. You will not see the same person that I’ve fought (like before). If I fight tomorrow, the next day I’m going to be a different fighter. I haven’t had to do anything when it comes to changing my game because nobody has stopped the first thing. ‘OK, he’s just a wrestler.’ It’s not that. It’s that they haven’t been able to stop that at that point.
“If I can hold cards, I will. If they can stop it, cool, we’ll have some fun and keep going. I’d say the most dangerous thing about me is probably my pace and we haven’t really even made it that far yet.”
“… (The UFC) is going to happen. In my mind, it’s inevitable. If I keep going in the direction I’m going, it’s going to happen. I don’t mind having to wait a little bit. I know my ego wants it now and everyone wants it to happen now, but I also know that the longer they wait the better I’m getting now. Either way, everything is going up when it comes to entertainment, when it comes to fighting, when it comes to life. All directions are pointing up. It’s already been so difficult finding fights. I’m just trying to be pushed.”
Weight class: Flyweight
Next Fight: Aug. 20 vs. TBA at Combat Night in Tallahassee, Fla.
Background: Fighting was a high school thing for Christopher Daniel, until he got beat up after he graduated by an old classmate. There was no anger that resulted in Daniel from the whooping. Instead, admiration. Daniel wanted to learn how he was beat up like that. So eventually he found the school of UFC fighter Vagner Rocha. It was a hobby until a family tragedy left him needing both an outlet and purpose. Former UFC fighter Jim Alers served as a fantastic mentor inside and outside of the gym as Daniel turned into an amateur – then, a professional athlete.
The skinny: Daniel is a lighter flyweight who barely cuts any weight. As his record has improved the amount of people who jump at the opportunity to fight him have slimmed. However, Combat Night has done a good job of keeping him active and he’s delivered. He’s a do-or-die fighter who does more than he dies. The grappling department is his forte, especially recently as he’s won three-straight by submission. On a four-fight winning streak, Daniel is making a name for himself in Florida. Always in need of flyweights, don’t be surprised when the UFC comes knocking.
In his own words: “Right now, I work part-time at FedEx. I’m a package handler, but a full-time fighter. I work a job and a half to pay essential bills like my car and insurance – but it’s all worth it to make that dream happen. … I feel like right now I definitely see that door cracked a little bit. I’m just waiting for that fight date to come up so I can kick that door open.”
“… What makes me stick out is that my fights are never the same. They’re never the same. For example, everyone goes in there and has a Plan A. Once that Plan A fails, they can’t go to Plan B or Plan C because all they know is Plan A. They only want their strongest attributes that they had. They’re either a good wrestler or a good striker. But then they go into that stage where, ‘Hey, everything that I trained for is not happening. How can I move about and go to the destination of getting my hand raised?’
“I’m the type of guy that could have a great two or three rounds or I could lose two rounds and I’ll come back in the third round and find a way to finish. There’s no way to count me out. You’ve got to either put me out or submit me. That’s how my two losses came. I either win by submission or knockout, or I get finished.”
Weight class: Welterweight
Birthplace: Enid, Okla.
Next Fight: Aug. 27 vs. Floyd Jones (4-2) at B2 Fighting Series 174 in Lake Charles, La. (FITE)
Background: A college football player at East Central University in Ada, Okla., Kris Vereen tried out for the CFL and landed in the Arena Football League. After a few weeks, he was cut. In order to expand his alethic horizons, he walked into an MMA gym. His friend Kelvin Rayford challenged him to a judo class. Vereen admits he was cocky, but quickly ate humble pie while a teenage kid tossed him around. Competitions or fights weren’t on the agenda, but opportunities presented themselves and his life trajectory changed. Eventually, he met up with UFC alum Mark De La Rosa and the rest was history.
The skinny: Undefeated at 6-0, Vereen has had seven professional fights including two no contests. He’s 33, which on the older side for his experience level, but it’s important to remember he brought an unusual level of athleticism into MMA as a collegiate and professional football player. Thus far, he’s proven to be a finisher – with a 100 percent rate of ending fights inside the distance. If he goes out there and takes care of business at B2 Fighting Series again, he seems like a perfect candidate for Dana White’s Contender Series. Could it be too soon? Maybe. Could he be ahead of where the critics think he is? Absolutely. What better gauge than to go against another top prospect with a UFC deal on the line?
In his own words: “Every one of my fights I continue to get better and better. I still feel I haven’t reached my full potential. I’m not content so I’m looking to get better. … I always want to go in there and show I can compete with these kind of talented guys. I can compete with these wrestlers. I can compete with these guys who are doing the athletic stuff. I’m looking to put on a good fight and show I’m better than last fight.”
“… I can only hope (the UFC calls after this). I have the right team behind me to do it. I have the best manager in the game, Jason House, of Iridium Sports (Agency). I hope this one does do it, but I just can’t think about that right now. I’ve got to think about Aug. 27 first and then after that if it comes we’ll be prepared.”